The Utter Clutter of It All

By Liz Seymour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 31, 2008

After 11 weeks, more than $500 in new storage containers and dozens of overstuffed trash bags, I have cleaned out my attic.

It's not just neat, it's organized. That means the china rests next to the crystal and the silver, packed nicely in new quilted boxes. The Christmas cookie jar sits on top of the boxes of tree ornaments. My 2-year-old son's art portfolio lies atop the plastic bin of baby clothes I want to keep.

Everything is labeled and lined up along either side of the attic, leaving an open space more than 10 feet wide. So wide, I was able to unroll two Oriental rugs that had been rolled up for nearly five years.

Organizing the attic was an emotional experience. I had to face the fact that I was never going to use a lot of the stuff I inherited from my parents and it was time to get rid of some of it. I had to admit that there was no reason to hold on to the high chair and other baby gear I'd been storing, because I wasn't going to have any more children. And I had to acknowledge my failure at household bookkeeping after spending hours sorting through boxes of outdated bills, tax returns and other documents.

Beyond the emotional toll, this was a back-breaking job. It took me weeks, because you can only work in two- or three-hour shifts. Even armed with a pitcher of water and having an attic that's more climate-controlled than most, the sorting and storing became very tedious.

This is why I couldn't complete this project on my own. Caitlin Shear, a professional organizer with A Sorted Affair in Fairfax (I love her firm's name), came to my house in Northwest Washington for two hours every Friday morning to nudge and prod me forward and remind me that an attic should be for long-term storage, not for just dumping things until someone decides what to do with them.

She offered advice on what to keep, what to donate and what to throw away.

She carted my donations to various nonprofit organizations in the region so they wouldn't sit for months in my garage. She offered ideas on reusing some stuff I couldn't part with but I didn't really need. And she was a compassionate listener when attic treasures revived painful memories of my mother's unsuccessful battle with leukemia and my father's subsequent decline.

The overwhelming emotion I feel is relief. I was embarrassed about the way the place looked and ashamed that I could not find anything. Now I am proud and less stressed. Here are some lessons I've learned:

1. So much of what was up there was trash. Week after week as Caitlin and I sifted through my clutter, a lot of what we found needed to be thrown out. Not donated, not reused. I'm talking empty boxes and shopping bags, crumpled-up newspaper, mailing tubes, ATM receipts from a decade ago, the lease for the apartment my husband, Bob, and I rented nine years ago. Caitlin estimates that we threw out 60 percent of what was in the attic. We donated about 10 percent and kept the remaining 30 percent.

2. Time changes everything. I don't think I would have donated anything two or three years ago. Five years ago, I don't think Bob would have considered donating his archives of the 1995 Detroit newspaper strike. Caitlin said many people hold onto things long after their usefulness has ended because they reflect a time in life they don't want to let go of. In her own life, she said, it was hard to get rid of the very expensive yarn she bought in 1989 but never put to good use. The same with the leotards from the ballet class she loved but no longer has the time to attend.

3. You're never really done. My attic looks great, but I need to work to keep it that way. Caitlin recommends a seasonal approach. For example, after Christmas, she wants me to see if there were any ornaments or decorations I did not hang. They might be candidates for donations. Tax time is a good opportunity to sort through paperwork and check if I'm holding on to documents I don't need. In June, when school lets out, she suggests I sort through the clothing and mementos I've collected for my daughter, Maggie, and my son, Charlie. Caitlin also recommends having a few extra storage containers on hand to immediately start a new project and avoid piling stuff on top of stuff.

I've received hundreds of e-mails at about readers' struggles with clutter. Keep them coming! And join the final online chat with Caitlin and me at 1 p.m. today at

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